Saturday, August 08, 2009

Garmin Lovin'

Today was the first time I really stretched my legs and used my new Garmin 396 as more than just a pointer in the general direction of my destination. The Weather-out-the-Window&trade was not exactly what the Chamber of Commerce would be looking for when looking for examples to include in the brochure, but it wasn't horrible either. The morning was forecast to be warm and muggy with a 9000' overcast, and the after was forecast to be warmer and muggier with a 9000' forecast. Or something like that. Not pretty, periods of light rain, but flyable.

I've noticed that I've become very selective about the weather that I will fly in. To a large degree that has had more to do with concern over the conditions later in the day that the ambient weather at departure time. Once away from my PC and internet connection, it gets exponentially harder to acquire weather data. Forecasts are nothing more than slightly informed rumors, but they're all we have to use in our decision making. The fear has always been that a forecast for light winds and 9000' overcast could end up being horribly wrong and I'd find myself faced with much worse conditions.

The Garmin 396 helps with that with the weather reports that it downloads from the XM radio satellites. More on that later. For now, the plan was to fly to Portsmouth Ohio for a flight in Wingman Ted's RV-9A. I've ridden in it before, of course, but this time I was more interested in getting some stick time. As I pursue my futile pass time of trying to decide what I would like to have should I ever decide to upgrade to a more weather capable airplane, I have developed quite a bit of curiosity regarding the RV-9A. It has some notable benefits over the RV-6:

- Nosewheel and (much!) larger rudder allow for flying in higher wind conditions
- Longer wing provides more stability, which is desirable in an instrument platform
- Nosewheel and longer, more forgiving wing would allow the opportunity for real flying lessons for Co-pilot Egg, should she ever express an interest in that
- Good IFR equipment would already be bought and installed in any example that I would consider buying. It would cost $15,000 - $20,000 to bring Papa Golf up to that technical standard, and even then I don't think I'd do it because of the stability issue

Possible detriments to the RV-9A:

- Longer, more forgiving wing would make it handle like a truck
- Nosewheel would cause the manly men who are capable of flying a tailwheel airplane to deride my abilities and openly question my studliness

It was the former of those points that I hoped to address by flying Ted's plane.

As mentioned, the weather wasn't that great, but it was only going to get worse as the heat index rose throughout the day. Papa and I were climbing out of Bolton by 0830. You can see that we weren't flying through what you would call scintillating weather; it was really kind of ugly:

I made a fairly decent landing, although I wasn't too impressed with my radio work in the way into Portsmouth. I got all muddle-mouthed on my initial call and tripped heavily over the words "straight in approach," probably because I very rarely make such an approach. It's one of those evangelical pilot issues - some people hate them, others don't see the big fuss. I had been monitoring the CTAF frequency for miles and miles, though, and not heard a single other airplane at Portsmouth all morning. That does not guarantee that there's no one there, of course, but it's certainly a strong hint that I might have the place to myself. I decided that if anyone chirped up on the radio, it would be a simple matter to just transition into a right crosswind, downwind, and base to runway 18.

That plan was going swimmingly right up until I made my last radio call on short final. The radio came alive with "Papa Golf, I'm watching."


Who's watching? The FAA? Some guy in a Lear Jet getting ready to takeoff in the opposite direction?

I didn't see anyone, though, so I kept going. It was a relatively good landing, but any time I down completely grease one in such light wind conditions I feel like Tiger Woods getting a bogey on a 480 yd Par 5. In other words, I feel like I missed an opportunity.

Ted met me at the airplane with his belt-holstered aviation transceiver. Ah, mystery solved. After a few morning pleasantries, we jumped into his plane. Me in the left seat. The position of honor! Sweet!

Ted explained his flying techniques for protecting the nosewheel on takeoff and landing. The Van's nosewheels have either a well- or un-deserved reputation for having a weak, crumple-prone design. It's another one of those religious issues to RV pilots and I know enough to stay out of discussions on it. Which is a good thing, actually, since I have absolutely no direct knowledge on the topic. You'd think that a lack of knowledge would keep me from expressing an opinion on any topic, but sadly such is not always the case. In any event, I figure it's Ted's plane and I'll fly it the way he wants me to. Or try, anyway. It turns out to be one of those things you do by feel, and I wasn't feeling it. I imagine that, as with many other things, comes with practice.

What I determined about the flying qualities was pretty much as I would have guessed. When compared to the nimble RV-6, the RV-9A feels ponderous in both pitch and roll. It's not that it requires more stick movement exactly, it's more that it requires more effort to move the stick and the resulting roll or pitch rate is much slower than in the -6. This is by design, of course, and is not to be considered a demerit. Quite the contrary, in fact. These are the qualities that make it a better touring and instrument airplane. Well, that and the wider, more comfortable cockpit.

Ted set all of the fancy computerized gadgetry up for me to fly the GPS approach back into Portsmouth. That seems like a bit of a trade-off. There was quite a flurry of button pushing and knob turning, but once all of that was done it was a simple matter indeed to fly the approach. Just follow the lines on the screen and you will find the airport. It takes awhile to decode exactly what you're looking at, but this too is simply a matter of familiarity. I'm sure I'd get used to it quickly. It's bound to be safer than the attitude indicator, directional gyro, and CDI that I'm used to. Perhaps it's overkill, though. I think I could get by with a good HSI when it comes right down to it. No reason to do so, though, since the glass stuff is becoming more affordable that precision, complex mechanical instruments.

I hamfisted my way through a couple of landings where I attempted to prove those detractors of the ostensibly weak Van's nosewheel wrong by repeatedly slapping Ted's against the runway, but if I'm remembering correctly even my worst landing didn't result in the bouncing that happens so commonly when I botch a landing in the -6. Hopefully Ted had his eyes open and can chime in with his observations on that topic.

After wolfing down a ham and cheese omelet at the airport diner, it was time to head home. The weather hadn't improved, nor had it significantly deteriorated. There was some rain in the area though. Here's an over-the-shoulder shot of Portsmouth as I was climbing out to the north:


I pointed the Garmin at Bolton and zoomed out to take a look at the weather:

(You can click on these pictures to see them larger; that will probably help as I talk about them)

You can see a few interesting things in the picture above. First, that little airplane icon in the bottom center of the screen is me. The purple line running vertically from the little airplane icon up to the top of the map is the direct route to Bolton. It's hard to see, but the 'KTZR' just under the purple arrow at the top is Bolton.

You can also see inverted pale blue pyramids at the airports labeled KILN (Wilmington), KLCK (Rickenbacker AFB), and a collection of others. Light blue means VFR, or in other words, good (enough) weather conditions. Oddly enough, Garmin chose the color Green for marginal conditions. Yellow and Red indicate increasingly crappy conditions that are unsuitable for a VFR pilot/airplane such as me/Papa. The collection of light blue pyramids indicated that the general conditions for a broad area around me were still adequate for my immediate needs.

Off to the east and northeast you can see radar returns. That means rain. Light green rain is reportedly often still flyable if the clouds are high enough, but as none of it was in my direct path there was no reason to test those assertions.

Finally, you can see some hatched purple lines forming irregular boxes. Those lines surround MOAs, or Military Operating Areas. Those are legal to fly through, but it's not well advised to do so without first contacting air traffic control to see if they're being used. The box that I would be flying through has a floor of 5,000' and I would be down at 3,500', so that was moot. I'm familiar with those altitudes from previous experience, but the 396 could have told me the altitude restrictions quite easily had I needed it to.

Even though the blue pyramid at Bolton indicated generally adequate conditions, a more detailed report is most assuredly desirable. For example, while the conditions for visibility and ceiling might be within limits, a 30 knot wind would preclude my landing there, but would not trigger a change to a green pyramid. Therefore, I really appreciate the ability to find a more specific report:

Wind from the south at 4 knots, clear skies, and at least 10 miles visibility.


Let's assume for the sake of argument that the conditions weren't as good as this. Let's pretend that instead of clear and 10, I found a report for a 3,000' ceiling and 3 miles visibility. That's right on the very edge of VFR requirements, but still suitable. The thing is, though, that three miles visibility is not very much, particularly when the clouds force you to stay down an 2,500'. In Ohio, that's only 1,500' above the ground, and the view from that low isn't all that great, especially if flying into thick haze. The GPS could guide me to the airport, but I wouldn't see it until the last second and would face a scramble to get into the proper position for landing.

There's a better way. These days, instrument approach diagrams ('plates' in the vernacular) are available free on the internet. If you look at this approach plate for Bolton, you will see the data that will enable a more accurate approach:

The two red circles mark the same point. That point is a waypoint named BOUTN. BOUTN is simply a defined point in space; there is nothing on the ground that defines BOUTN. It is also way is called an Initial Approach Fix. What that means is that it is a great waypoint to use as the first target when approaching the airport.

The green circle surrounds Bolton. The black line running from BOUTN to the green circle is the approach path. If you stay on that path, you will eventually arrive at the runway. You may not see it, mind you, but you will reach it.

The blue line is the flight path that I would take to reach BOUTN.

How did I figure that out? Well, I told the 396 to load the ILS 4 approach into Bolton. What that caused it to do was display BOUTN on the screen and set it as my next waypoint to fly to:

I didn't want to fly directly to BOUTN, though. What I really wanted to do was fly to a spot about two miles further away from the airport so I would have time to make the turn onto a course that would take me on a straight line through BOUTN to the end of runway four. I did that by telling the 396 that I would be receiving ATC vectors to that line. That was a fib, of course, but oddly enough I feel no compunction about lying to inanimate objects. It's an ethical lapse to be sure, but I've learned to live with it. Anyway, once I could see the extended line from BOUTN and could compare it to my present course, it was a simple matter to eyeball an appropriate heading that would allow me to intercept the inbound course a few miles outside of BOUTN. I told the 396 that a 345° heading was what I wanted, and it courteously provided me with a purple pentagon at the top of the screen to follow.

Here you can see me following the 345° heading bug, and you can see the diagonal yellow line pointing to a northeast heading:

When I am about to intersect that course line, the dark yellow segment of the diagonal line will align with the rest of the indicator line. When that happens, all I have to do is turn to the right to rotate the line to the vertical. It looks like this:

That picture shows that I am just to the right of the intended course. The BOUTN - RW04 tells me that I am between BOUTN and the end of the runway, and that I am 3.7 miles away from the runway. Here's what that looks like out the window:

If that's the view from 3.7 miles away, you can see why only three miles of visibility would make this much harder. Even that close, I would not be able to see the runway. Using this method, though, once I did see the runway, I would be well positioned to land. This would work even if I was going to land in the opposite direction on runway 22. In fact, that's what happened today. I called the tower when I was still outside of BOUTN to let him know that I was eight miles southwest and inbound for landing. He replied by asking if I was better positioned for a left or right pattern since he didn't know that I was in a position that would allow for either. Note that I would have avoided this position entirely if I had heard any traffic departing on 22.

Here's a hint: when the tower asks you if you want left or right, there is only one wrong choice. I hear this all the time and it really irritates the controller. That wrong answer is "whatever is best for you." If the controller had a preference, he would already have assigned it to you.

Just make a decision and tell him.

I chose left.

It was a tad gusty in the flare, but still a reasonably good landing.


  1. Dave,

    Glad you're enjoying your new toy. On METAR flags, I am pretty sure the colors used match the industry-standard colors as used by various websites and reference materials. Remember: Blue = blue skies (VFR), Green = still good (MVFR), Yellow = Caution, IFR required, and Red = you get the idea.

    - Matt

  2. You did well today. I don't remember that you slap mine down the runway. My nose wheel still looks new (after 638 hrs plus your landing..). Mains were planted on the runway firmly and runway center line tracked all the time. A few more TnGs you will be ready to "solo". As I told you before, in a 9A, you expect to land well and bounced landing is exception (once in a long while). After you left I went to Parkersburg (due east) and flew through some green and yellow stuff (in your first GPS shot). Air was smooth though.

  3. This is great stuff. I've only got a 600c so no datalink, but it can load fixes and extend runway centerlines, etc. Although I haven't used it much that's a great idea when it comes to reporting - I'll have to do this next time I fly to Bolton as I approach from the Southwest.

  4. Hey Dave,

    I just discovered your site. I like it -- great job! I just started my own aviation blog ( and have gotten interested in finding others. I've posted a link from my site to yours. I'm looking forward to reading new posts.

  5. Brian -

    Thanks for the link. I've added yours to my blog list.

    Good luck on the top overhaul. If you find yourself flying through Columbus airspace on your way back, be sure to stop at Bolton Field (KTZR) for some JP's ribs!